Biosphere 2: Background information when reading The Terranauts

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The Terranauts

by T.C. Boyle

The Terranauts by T.C. Boyle X
The Terranauts by T.C. Boyle
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2016, 528 pages
    Paperback:
    Oct 2017, 528 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
James Broderick

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About this Book

Beyond the Book:
Biosphere 2

Print Review

In Oracle, Arizona, sits one of the more intriguing experiments in "closed-system" science ever devised: Biosphere 2, which forms the backdrop for the novel, The Terranauts. Originally built to demonstrate that humans could construct and live sustainably for long periods in an artificially created world, the huge glass domes that make up the structure no longer host human inhabitants. However, far from becoming a white elephant, Biosphere 2 remains an active laboratory for scientific research and outreach, hosting visitors ranging from elementary schools to post-graduate scientific researchers.

Biosphere 2Construction of Biosphere 2, which began in 1987, took four years. Shortly after it was completed, a group of eight researchers entered the facility for a two-year residency. Each of the inhabitants was in charge of different aspects of the self-contained world. The five biomes consisted of a rain forest; an ocean, (a tank 100 x 60 feet, approximately 25 feet deep, with a lagoon, a coral reef, a sandy beach, and a series of pumps that operate as a wave machine); a wetlands; a savannah grassland; and a desert. Plants such as bananas, papayas, potatoes, and beans; livestock (five goats, three pigs, dozens of hens and roosters); and tilapia grown in a rice pond supplied the majority of food for the biospherians. Food shortages led to persistent hunger among most of the inhabitants for much of their time inside the structure, which also included modest living quarters.

Although no one was supposed to "break containment," it was revealed during the first mission that an injured crew member did leave, and even brought in some supplies when re-entering the facility. However, the mission continued, ending Sept. 26, 1993, exactly two years to the day after the biospherians were sealed in. A second mission with another cohort began in March 1994, but ended prematurely in September of that year due largely to financial problems with the private company, Space Biosphere Ventures, that financed and managed the facility.

In 1995, Columbia University took over the management of the biosphere, using it as a research facility until 2003. Shortly thereafter, the owners of the site—which includes 1,600 acres surrounding the biosphere as a kind of desert campus—put it all up for sale. The surrounding land was purchased for housing and resort development, but the biosphere itself was acquired by the University of Arizona, which uses it today for educational and research purposes.

Picture of Biosphere 2 by DrStarbuck

Article by James Broderick

This article was originally published in January 2017, and has been updated for the October 2017 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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